Nunez is pushing change as his legacy
In his remaining months in office, outgoing Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez hopes he can leave a long-lasting mark on the Legislature with new term limits, a ban on fundraising during key periods and a new way of drawing state voting districts.
He and the Assembly’s minority leader, Mike Villines (R-Clovis), are discussing a constitutional amendment package that could be placed on the November ballot by the Legislature if two-thirds of lawmakers agree.
“I can’t tell you that it’s going to materialize,” said Nunez, a Los Angeles Democrat, in an interview. “Am I working on it? Yes. Am I putting time into it? Yes.”
One proposal would extend the terms of state legislators. In February, voters defeated a Nunez-backed measure that would have allowed him and other termed-out officeholders to run for reelection.
Nunez said he still wanted to double the amount of time legislators could stay in the Assembly, but his latest proposal would not apply to those in their final terms.
He and Villines also are discussing a ban on fundraising by lawmakers during budget talks and when critical votes are being taken, and a proposal to take from legislators the power to choose their voters by drawing their own districts.
Villines said in a separate interview, “There’s an opportunity for reform, and both parties should come together and look at that.”
Nunez must leave the Assembly in December; he is expected to be replaced as speaker next month by Assemblywoman Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles). Nunez has said he does not plan to run for another public office in the near future. But he has $5.1 million in a political account that could be used for ballot measure campaigns.
He said he seeks a term-limits change like the one voters rejected three months ago, but it would apply to future legislators and those in office as of January 2009.
“I think it would be a contribution to the Legislature as an institution,” Nunez said.
He was criticized for breaking a promise to join term-limits changes with a measure to end the conflict-laden tradition of legislators drawing the districts where they run for office. As it is, the party that dominates the Legislature controls the once-a-decade redistricting process, and lines are often skewed to favor incumbents.
Reformers say districts with more evenly balanced populations of Republican and Democratic voters would create more competitive elections and encourage legislators to pursue compromise instead of partisanship.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has long championed an independent redistricting commission, including a measure defeated by voters in 2005. He and groups that include AARP, the League of Women Voters and the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce now back a proposed initiative that would give redistricting authority to a 14-member panel. It would not apply to congressional districts, which still would be drawn by the Legislature.
The signature-gathering effort to qualify that initiative, called California Voters First, is nearly complete, backers say. It would appear on the November ballot.
Schwarzenegger has donated $550,000 of his campaign money to the cause, and New York Mayor Michael A. Bloomberg has pledged $250,000.
Though that measure has Democratic support, Nunez called it a “political power grab by Republicans.”
He objected to details of the rules that a citizens commission would have to follow in drawing political boundaries. Nunez said the rules would weaken minority representation in the Legislature and eliminate all seats traditionally held by African Americans.
“If I’m not going to support this,” Nunez said, “I’d better have an alternative.”
Villines said the Schwarzenegger-backed redistricting proposal would be better than the current system, but he said he would prefer that a new commission also draw congressional districts.
Schwarzenegger advisor Adam Mendelsohn said the governor welcomes a debate about political reform but will not wait for the Legislature to voluntarily cede redistricting authority. Despite the promises of top legislative leaders, bills to overhaul how political boundaries are drawn have died repeatedly in the Legislature since 2005.
“The bottom line is that we waited last year for the Legislature to get redistricting done, and nothing got done,” Mendelsohn said. “The governor is not going to do that again.”
Other backers of the proposed initiative now being circulated warned that two redistricting measures on the November ballot could confuse voters and doom both.
Villines predicted that if the Legislature succeeded in placing its own redistricting plan on the November ballot, backers of the California Voters First proposal would abandon their effort.
AARP state President Jeannine English, who helped write the initiative, splashed cold water on that idea.
“Why would we abandon it now when this is what we’ve worked the last three years for,” she said, “and we think this is the answer to taking the conflict of interest out of the redistricting process?”
Nunez, she said, had an opportunity to achieve both term limits and redistricting changes last year.
“I think that window is closed,” English said.